"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob -- not of the philosophers and scholars." Thus exclaimed Blaise Pascal in the famous memorial in which he recorded the overwhelming religious/mystical experience of the night of 23 November 1654. Martin Buber comments (Eclipse of God, Humanity Books, 1952, p. 49):
These words represent Pascal's change of heart. He turned, not from a state of being where there is no God to one where there is a God, but from the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham. Overwhelmed by faith, he no longer knew what to do with the God of the philosophers; that is, with the God who occupies a definite position in a definite system of thought. The God of Abraham . . . is not susceptible of introduction into a system of thought precisely because He is God. He is beyond each and every one of those systems, absolutely and by virtue of his nature. What the philosophers describe by the name of God cannot be more than an idea. (emphasis added)
Buber here expresses a sentiment often heard. We encountered it before when we found Timothy Ware accusing late Scholastic theology of turning God into an abstract idea. But the sentiment is no less wrongheaded for being widespread. As I see it, it simply makes no sense to oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the God of religion -- to the God of philosophy. In fact, I am always astonished when otherwise distinguished thinkers retail this bogus distinction. Let's try to sort this out.
It is first of all obvious that God, if he exists, transcends every system of human thought, and cannot be reduced to any element internal to such a system whether it be a concept, a proposition, an argument, a set of arguments, etc. But by the same token, the chair I am sitting on cannot be reduced to my concept of it or to the judgments I make about it. I am sitting on a chair, not a concept of a chair. The chair, like God, is transcendent of my conceptualizations and judgments. The transcendence of God, however, is a more radical form of transcendence, that of a person as opposed to that of a material object. And among persons, God is at the outer limit of transcendence, so much so that it is plausibly argued that 'person' in application to God can only be used analogically.
Now if Buber were merely saying something along these lines then I would have no quarrel with him. But he is saying something more, namely, that when a philosopher in his capacity as philosopher conceptualizes God, he reduces him to a concept or idea, to something abstract, to something merely immanent to his thought, and therefore to something that is not God. In saying this, Buber commits a grotesque non sequitur. He moves from the unproblematically true
1. God by his very nature is transcendent of every system of thought or scheme of representation
to the breathtakingly false
2. Any thought about God or representation of God (such as we find, say in Aquinas's Summa Theologica) is not a thought or representation of God, but of a thought or representation, which, of course, by its very nature is not God.
As I said, I am astonished that anyone could fall into this error. When I think about something I don't in thinking about it turn it into a mere thought. When I think about my wife's body, for example, I don't turn it into a mere thought: it remains transcendent of my thought as a material thing. A fortiori, I am unable by thinking about my wife as a person, an other mind, to transmogrify her personhood into a mere concept in my mind. She remains in her interiority as a person delightfully transcendent of my acts of thinking.
It is interesting to observe that it is built into the very concept God that God cannot be a concept. This concept is the concept of something that cannot by its very nature be a concept. This is the case whether or not God exists. The concept God is the concept of something that cannot be a concept even if nothing falls under the concept.
It is therefore bogus to oppose the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, et al. Or at least it is bogus to make this oppositin for the reason Buber supplies. There is and can be only one God. But there are different approaches to this one God. By my count, there are four ways of approaching God: by reason, by faith, by mystical experience, and by our moral sense. To employ a hackneyed metaphor, if there are four routes to the summit of a mountain, it does not follow that there are four summits, with only one of them being genuine, the others being merely immanent to their respective routes. Suppose Tom, Dick, Harry, and Mary each summit by a different route. Mary cannot denigrate the accomplishments of the males by asserting that they didn't really summit on the ground that their respective termini were merely immanent to their routes. She cannot say, "You guys didn't really reach the summit; you merely reached a point on your map."
I should think that direct acquaintance with God via mystical/religious experience is superior to contact via faith or reason or morality. It is better to taste food than to read about it on a menu. But that's not to say that the menu is about itself: it is about the very same stuff that one encounters by eating. The fact that it is better to eat food than read about it does not imply that when one is reading one is not reading about it. Imagine how silly it would be be for me to exclaim, while seated before a delicacy: "Food of Wolfgang Puck, Food of Julia Child, Food of Emeril Lagasse, not of the nutritionists and menu-writers!"
I believe I have established my point against Buber conclusively. But to appreciate this, you must not confuse the question I am discussing with another question in the vicinity.
Suppose one philosopher argues to an unmoved mover, another to an ultimate ground of moral obligation, and a third to an absolute source of truth. How do we know that thesee three notionally distinct philosophical Gods are the same as each other in reality and the same as the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob, in reality? This is an important question, but not the one I am addressing in this entry. The present question is whether a philosophical treatment of God transforms God into a mere concept or mere idea. The answer is resoundingly in the negative. Such a treatment purports to treat of the very same real God that is addressed in prayer, seen in mystical vision, and sensed in the deliverances of conscience.